Stalls

Second Innings

Source: Neville Cardus, Second Innings: Autobiographical Reminiscences (London: Collins, 1950), pp. 23-34

Productions: Robinson Crusoe, Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, 1902/03?; Aladdin, Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, 1900/01; and Mother Goose, Theatre Royal, Manchester, 1904/1905

Text: I was not more than twelve years old when I first entered a theatre. It was one of Robert Courtneidge’s Christmas pantomimes in Manchester, Robinson Crusoe, I think, with Vesta Tilley as the principal boy. I was not ‘taken’ to this pantomime; I went by myself and watched from the highest gallery in the world. After long waiting in a queue until you would hear the lifting of a bar at the door, you placed your six-pence under a wire-netting, from behind which the girl or woman in charge pressed a lever, and a heavy square deposit of lead came out of a slot. That was your ticket.

The climb to the gallery was arduous, even to an eager boy. Round and round, with acute angles all the way; at every step upwards one’s body became more bent on the purpose, the knee action more deliberate, the breath more sternly drawn. Then, at the top of the steps was a dark refreshment bar (not yet opened) to pass through, and now at last the theatre itself was attained. At great distance below was the stage, the curtain alluringly down. To find a front place in the gallery involved some agility and nerve; there were no seats, only long rows of wooden ledges, and to save time and to get there first we did not walk gingerly down a central staircase but leaped from cliff to cliff. We would lean over the rail of the gallery and watch the stalls and pit assembling. Sometimes a programme fluttered down, like a visitant from another hemisphere.

When I write that ‘we’ would lean over the gallery rail, I am using the ‘we’ metaphorically; for I went alone to the theatre in my boyhood, as indeed I went alone everywhere, walking through the city streets reading a boy’s paper and by some instinct always coming out of my enchantment just in time not to bump against a lamp-post. I do not know how I contrived to get money for admission to the theatre gallery week by week; on one occasion at least I committed petty theft. I stole a volume out of the limited and discursive family library, which comprised East Lynne, the Bible, somebody’s Dream Book, and one other novel, this by Marion Crawford. The volume I stole was a collection of poems by Coleridge, and I am at a loss to this day to understand how it came to find a place in the household. I took it to a second-hand bookseller’s in Oxford Street owned by a man of immeasurable age, who made me think of the Old Testament. His clothes were shiny and he smelt; his name was Coleman; and in his front window, amongst a ruin of ancient literature, was a phrenologist’s bust, the head marked into squares like the counties on a map. The interior of the shop was gloomy; piles of books, and the odour of damp and slow decay. There was another Coleman, reputed to be a son, with skin of vellum and eyes tightly stuck together by what my fearful imagination visualised as blindness.

Coleman senior looked at the Coleridge, rumbled in his stomach, and offered me a shilling. I took it and fled straight up the brow of Oxford Street, under the railway arch, past the corner shop with birds in cages around the door and gold-fish in globes in the window. It was Saturday afternoon; there was a pantomime matinee. It may have been the sale of Coleridge that enabled me to see Ada Reeve as Aladdin, G.P. Huntley as Widow Twankey, and Horace Mills as Abanazar. I did not go to the pantomime in the innocence of most boys of ten or eleven years old. In those days boys and girls were not encouraged to enter a theatre at all in a provincial English city; the pantomimes of the period were severely sophisticated in their outlook both towards the particular theme of Cinderella or The Forty Thieves and towards life in general. Maggie Duggan and George Robey occasioned much concern in the councils of the Manchester Watch Committee, protectors of public morals. There was also a suspicion in many families that theatres were peculiarly combustible and likely to catch fire; in brief, for a boy to set foot in a theatre alone was thought a certain means sooner or later either of going to the devil or of being burnt alive. The danger to my morals seldom occurred to me, but frequently I felt a vague apprehensiveness when I stood looking down over the gallery rail on the delights below, forbidden delights, delights deceitfully enjoyed; for I always lied whenever I was asked where I had been when I got home again. Electricity was more or less a new and experimental department of science forty years ago; and Robert Courtneidge invariably brought the first part of his pantomime to an end by a long ‘transformation’ scene, in which furnaces of magnificences were unfolded as one flimsy gauze curtain after another ascended on high, beginning with the narrowest strip of the stage on which the Fairy Queen stood, in company with the principal boy; and she would wave her wand saying:

And now Aladdin take me by the hand
And I will show you all the joys of Fairyland.

Opalescent deeps of the sea; caves of turquoise and rubies; apocalyptic sunrises and radiance of every boy’s dream of the Arabian Nights, all accumulating in a lavish expense of electricity. It was with an amount of relief that one witnessed at the apotheosis a temporary lowering of the fireproof curtain.

As I say, I did not attend my pantomimes in the innocence of childhood; the fairy-tale basis of a pantomime had for me but a secondary interest. I marked the distinction between Robinson Crusoe and the principal boy who happened to be playing the part; I knew that Abanazar was Horace Mills, and once when I saw Horace Mills walking in a Manchester Street looking exactly like any man of business wearing gloves and a bowler hat, I followed secretly behind him and laughed to myself at his every movement though he did nothing that was the slightest bit funny off the stage. Ada Reeve was Aladdin one year; I remember that when she couldn’t remember the world ‘Abracadabra’, and she realised she was locked in the cave more or less for ever, she immediately consoled herself and the rest of us by singing ‘Good-bye, Dolly Gray’, the popular song of the Boer War. But the point is that she didn’t sing the chorus but spoke it, in a husky dramatic monotone. This was revolutionary; this was new method. The cognoscenti in the dress circle, I was informed years afterwards, were taken aback, and they shook their heads until by force of art Ada Reeve conquered a lifetime’s principles. Round about this time of my life I saw Ada Reeve in Floradora [sic] the very week after the last performance of the pantomime; and pantomime ran from Christmas to Easter; and now she was a fashionable society darling, in a big brimmed hat, and she sang a song called ‘Tact’ in front of a row of long-trousered top-hatted young men with silver-mounted walking sticks. One week Aladdin’s cave and the splendour of the Orient, but in a few evenings it had all gone. Now, living and moving and having being on the same boards, walking in the same places where Widow Twankey and Abanazar had shaken the theatre into reckless and eternal laughter, were elegance and romance in a setting of tea-planters or what not; palm trees and deodar, and the melodies of Leslie Stuart. The palimpsest of the stage! I didn’t know of such a word but I remember a sudden feeling of sadness coming to my eyes when, once at a pantomime somebody sang ‘Is your Mammy always with you?’ and as I looked at the singer’s movements in the round circles of limelight that followed her, throwing two dancing shadows, the thought came to my mind that some day somebody else would perhaps be dancing on the same spot, and all would have become different; all would then be new and this would be forgotten long ago.

The old pantomimes observed a strict set of unities; the identity and comparative importance of the author of the ‘book’ – as it was called – was recognised. The ‘book’ was composed mainly in rhymed couplets, more or less heroic, uttered by the Demon (or Storm) King:

Ride on thou proud and saucy ship
But soon I’ll have this Crusoe in my grip.

These lines were invariably pronounced at the beginning of Act I in Davy Jones’s Locker, which was a drop-scene calling for merely what Mrs Gamp would have called a ‘parapidge’ of stage. The Demon King was a baritone, and the chances might be that we had last heard him on the pier in August at Southend singing the ‘Bedouin Love Song’ with the pierrots. Now in a more dramatic environment under the sea and in the dark he probably struck a deeper and more ambitious vocal note; ‘Rage thou angry storm’ from Balfe was not beyond the dream of possibility.

An inviolate decree held that in the programmes of classical pantomime the dramatis personae and the cast should be denoted and set forth in a running parenthesis of wit, such as:

‘Mrs Sinbad (who has sin-badder days) George Robey.’

From the murky element of the Storm King we would be changed in the twinkling of an eye to Pekin (maybe); or if the pantomime were of the occident the scene would be the village green outside the ‘Bull and Bush’. It was in Scene 2 that the pantomime really began and the stalls filled up. The Storm King didn’t appear again for hours, or the Fairy Queen. I often wondered what they were doing all the time. In Scene 2 the important personages of the pantomime made their appearance in order of renown. The Baron (or the Emperor) was allowed to hold the centre of the stage for a few minutes; perhaps he was even given a song, but nobody listened to him; he was merely a part of the connived plot of suspense. First came the principal girl – Amy Augarde or even Gertie Millar; then the more substantial principal boy (the best of all was Ada Blanche); and the principal boy would dash down the footlights and embrace the principal girl, kicking his left leg backwards as he did so.

At last, when the ‘House Full’ boards were put up in the theatre’s main entrances – terrible to see if you were outside in the fog trying to catch a glimpse of something behind the brilliant lights of the foyer – now was the moment: the stage was left significantly vacant for a brief pause. From the wings came sounds of brawl and derision and racket. And the Dame would arrive in some state of dishevelment, out of breath, having, for some reason never explained, been chased. Dan Leno or Robey or Harry Randall or Wilkie Bard – it might be any of them! – in elastic-sided boots, hair parted straight down the middle and tied in a bun, towards which the right hand would absent-mindedly stray when she came down the stage and spoke to us intimately about ‘Her First’ and of the vicissitudes of matrimony. An incomparable school of great English comic-actors created a Dickensian gallery of Dames. The greatest of them was Robey’s ‘Mother Goose’, who swerved from the unities of pantomime in her entrance to that most matchless of all pantomimes at the Manchester Theatre Royal, Christmas, 1904; and I saw it many times before it vanished into air the following March.

The scene was Mother Goose’s cottage, and the Landlord had called for the rent. George Bastow was Mother Goose’s son, and he endeavoured to keep the enemy at bay. (All landlords in our pantomimes and melodramas were enemies, as a matter of democratic course.) ‘The rent was not paid last week, or the week before, or the week before,’ raged the tyrant; ‘this is the last straw and final notice. Into the streets you all go!’ At this moment George Robey appeared, bland, with kindly recognition, wiping imaginary soap-suds from the hands on an apron. ‘Ah, there you are, landlord,’ said Mother Goose in Robey’s fruitiest voice; ‘there you are – such a lot wants doing to the house!’

It was in this same pantomime that George Robey held the stage for half an hour (while the scene-shifters were noisy and active behind a drop-scene, often causing it to bulge from contact with some royal dome or pinnacle) and created the immortal Mrs Moggeridge, a next-door neighbour, who, because never seen, has lived for ever. Robey came on from the side of the stage in a condition of agitation, fingers twitching, nose sniffing. He cast glances to the direction whence he had entered; they were glances poignant with contumely and injured pride. Simmering a little, but still on the boil, he folded arms, gave another toss of his head sideways and said, simply but obliquely. ‘Mrs Moggeridge!’ Nothing more than her name to begin with, but the intonation, with a descent of pitch at ‘ridge’, was contemptuous. Then he bent to us over the footlights, and in a sudden hysteria of ridicule, stated (or rather he conveyed) this information: ‘Fairy Queen in a Christmas pantomime!’ After another snort and a pause he added, in a voice pitched to a deeper note of irony, ‘Her.’

Satisfaction and triumph here became evident in Robey’s eyes and gestures; but suddenly he stiffened, and the neck was thrust again towards Mrs Moggeridge’s garden wall, whence obviously some Parthian thrust had been aimed. ‘And what of it?’ asked Robey, the voice rising in mingled menace, disdain and clear conscience. ‘What of if?’ (pronounced ’What arvert’).

Speculation sought in vain to deduce the nature of Mrs Moggeridge’s innuendo that it should have compelled this final bridling and this unanswerable fiat. Enough to say that after the pronouncement of it Mrs Moggeridge was heard no more. It is hard to believe we did not actually hear her or see her; there wasn’t never indeed ‘no sich a person’; it was a conjuration of comic art.

Robey was a master of tantrums, or in other circumstances, of spasms. In Jack and the Beanstalk, when Jack returned home with beans for the sale of the cow, Robey as the Dame achieved an awe-inspiring expression of twitching incredulity, woe and mortification, all evenly blended. He (or she) hurled the beans through the window, and at once the stalk began to grow upward. Robey caught sight of it out of the corner of his eyes as he was suffering another wave of distress. And he began to giggle, to experience hysteria but no words can describe this masterpiece of comic acting. It was done by imaginative absorption into a character and a scene; and here is the difference between the old great pantomime comedians of my youth and the comedians of to-day, who get their laughs by the things they say and are not funny in themselves, and are certainly not actors. Robey and Leno and Wilkie Bard and Little Tich and Harry Weldon were most nights in the year performers in the music hall, red-nosed and holding an audience for three-quarters of an hour, holding the theatre single-handed, with song and patter; and from time to time they would leave the stage to return as a new character – Robey’s Lord Mayor of Muckemdyke, Leno’s pathetic little Cockney just married, the victim of a building society; he had bought a house, and he leant over the footlights to tell us in husky confidence of his pride of possession. It was a nice house, with the river at the bottom of the garden; that is, when the garden wasn’t at the bottom of the river. But I must use a platitude now; it was not what these old drolls said, it was the way they said it. Little Tich, breathing on his tall hat before giving it a rub round with his elbow, made a noise that emptied his lungs, fraught with bronchitis. Gusto and faith in a complete surrender to extravagance; no smart-cracks but natural nonsense – as when the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, having been refused admission at the ball, Tom Foy said to Malcolm Scott, ‘Let’s walk in backwards and they’ll think we’re coming out.’ It was these comedians of the music hall who peopled our memories of pantomime with a gallery of Dames, each as rich in identity as Betsy Prig and Mrs Camp and the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.

The convention of pantomime persisted that the Dame and her son should begin poor and end wealthy. All the good characters, in fact, shared ample fortune as a reward of virtue; and during the last scene they came before us most opulently garbed – Robey’s magnificence was like a fantastic dream or apotheosis of a riotously lunatic Schiaparelli. The lesser male luminaries of the show, Idle Jack or Sinbad the Tailor, would wear terrific check suits with huge buttons of gold, and their choice in walking sticks was rococo. Nobody was harshly treated in this last of all the pantomime’s consummations of glory and electricity; even the Demon King received a burst of applause when he appeared, apparently a reformed character, in morning-coat and grey topper. And the children crowed their delight as the Cat came on for his share of the general recognition and acclamation, wearing a fur coat most likely.

Then the final chorus and the last ruthless descent of the curtain. Nothing left but the return to the world, to find oneself again in the streets outside, where life had been going on just the same on a winter day; it was dark now, with the gas-lamps burning, and when we had entered in realms of gold it had been afternoon and broad daylight.

Comments: Neville Cardus (1888-1975) was a British cricket correspondent and music critic. His impoverished childhood was spent in Manchester. Robert Courtneidge was a theatre producer, actor and playwright, and manager at this time of the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester. The production of Robinson Crusoe Cardus recalls was probably that of 1902/03 (it did not star Vesta Tilley). The Aladdin that he saw opened at the Prince’s Theatre on 22 December 1900, with Ada Reeve, G.P. Huntley and Horace Mills. The 1899 musical comedy Florodora was written by Owen Hall, with music by Leslie Stuart.The production of Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal opened in December 1904, starring George Robey, one of the great figures of English music hall and variety.

The Classic Slum

Source: Robert Roberts, The Classic Slum: Salford life in the first quarter of the century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971), pp. 147-150

Text: For the tired and umambitious there were other allurements. in our midst stood the usual ‘Blood Tub’, a low-grade theatre whose presence impinged on life social and cultural over a wider area. With actors, as with bookmakers, feeling remained ambivalent. Star performers,of course, were wholeheartedly admired save by the narrowly religious few, but ordinary theatricals who made up the weekly touring companies and who lodged, keeping themselves, in the larger houses close to the theatre, both impressed and shocked us. We watched the small-part actors with cheroots swaggering through the stage door in lush coats, astrakhan collared, and were amazed to discover through the matriarchs (who knew everything) that many of them owned but a single shirt apiece or one pair of socks. Though when ‘the ghost walked’ – pay night – and they popped in at the shop to buy generously of boiled ham, mustard pickles and pineapple chunks, they seemed well-heeled enough. Undoubtedly some kept up a bold face on most meagre incomes: a pair of sisters we knew, competent artists, as late as 1913 kept going in some style on the combined pay of 35s a week, out of which they had to find 8s 6d for a place to sleep. We saw actresses powdered and mincing, befurred and large-bosomed, cheeks bright with rouge (‘Red John’ the matrons called it), and we knew they had shared a pair of kippers for lunch. And all were immoral! Of that the respectable had no doubt. Yet they brought glamour, new ideas, tilillating catch-words, beauty, fantasy and a sense of style to our wretched reality, and we loved them for it. Occasionally a girl in her early teens, to the envy of all others, would leave us to ‘go on the stage’, i.e. join a touring dance troupe. On fleeting visits home afterwards, ‘dolled up to the eyes’, she would often pass down the street and ignore everyone. But neighbours had the satisfaction of thinking the worst.

Nowhere, of course, stood class division more marked than in a full house at the theatre, with shopkeepers and publicans in the orchestra stalls and dress circle, artisans and regular workers in the pit stalls, and the low class and no class on the ‘top shelf’ or balcony. There in the gods hung a permanent smell of smoke from ‘thick twist’, oranges and unwashed humanity. Gazing happily down on their betters the mob sat once a week and took culture in the shape of ‘East Lynne’, ‘The Silver King’, ‘Pride of the Prairie’, ‘A Girl’s Crossroads’, ‘The Female Swindler’, ‘A Sister’s Sacrifice’ and the first rag-time shows. The drama critic of our weekly press invariably ladled handsome praise over all plays and performers, though when, in ‘A Woman of Pleasure’, the heroine was abducted in the first act, and again (by balloon) in the second, chased through the third across Africa by natives and wild beasts, then, in the finale, snatched at the last moment from a burning ship – all this to the rattle of the South African war – he felt that the title was ‘somewhat misleading’.

In later years, after cinema had begun to outstrip live entertainment as an attraction, our theatre, like many others, tried ‘go as you please’ competitions on Friday evenings when local amateurs, good to outrageous, trod the boards. Two turns, at least, after debut could not have pursued their art much further, and the first, a nerve-fraying soprano, brought down what, for a moment, looked like a genuine protest from heaven. In the middle of her rendering of ‘The Holy City’ a bolt of flame burst from the upper dark and fell like a judgement to consume itself over vacant seats in the stalls. It turned out, however, that some careless smoker had ignited a lady’s cotton shawl and she had cast it forth blazing from the gods. The altercation which followed, aloft, added much to our evening.

The other artist, who called himself Houdini II, performed to slow piano music. He invited members of the audience to tie him with ropes, guaranteeing to be free ‘in a trice’. Two dockers then trussed him up so effectively that a few minutes later the stage manager and his aide had to carry him off like a parcel, bent double and almost asphyxiated, the audience having watched his frenetic struggles in dead silence. Later he appeared at the tail end of the prize-winners and received a five shilling consolation award for ‘effort’.

Many patrons of the cheapest seats in the theatre, lacking the benefits of literacy, revelled in song and the spoken word much as Shakespeare’s ‘groundlings’ had done three hundred years before. Often two friends would go together; one to learn by heart the air of the latest hit, the other to concentrate on getting hold of the lyric. Songs first heard in the theatre were taken up in pubs then rendered with dreary iteration by street buskers for the next several years. Professional ‘cadgers’ came among us in hard times, as many as ten a week. Some made no attempt to earn reward but begged openly from door to door; others strutted in a stylized walk down the middle of the ‘cart road’ quavering loud enough for householders to hear. Local members of the fraternity, though, never had the bad taste to perform in their own district. Some after singing broke into oratory, when reasons for their destitution came crying along the wind. This form of appeal, however, was generally frowned on. ‘I didn’t know where to put myself!’ said one woman in the shop, ‘when that — today started shoutin’ the odds!’ There was common agreement that a man should not ‘cry poverty’. One doubts if beggary ever profited much by it.

Comments: Robert Roberts (1905-1979) became an English teacher following his Salford childhood, where his parents ran a corner-shop. His book is a classic of working-class autobiography.

Two Views of a Cheap Theatre

Edward G. Dalziel, 'A Cheap Theatre, Sunday Night', illustrating The Uncommercial Traveller, 1877 edition

Edward G. Dalziel, ‘A Cheap Theatre, Sunday Night’, illustrating The Uncommercial Traveller, 1877 edition

Source: Charles Dickens, ‘Two Views of a Cheap Theatre’, All the Year Round, vol. 2, 25 February 1860, pp. 416-421. Reproduced in The Uncommercial Traveller (1861, 1868, 1875)

Text: I shut the door of my lodging behind me, and came out into the streets at six on a drizzling Saturday evening in the last past month of January, all that neighbourhood of Covent-garden looked very desolate. It is so essentially a neighbourhood which has seen better days, that bad weather affects it sooner than another place which has not come down in the World. In its present reduced condition it bears a thaw almost worse than any place I know. It gets so deadfully low-spirited when damp breaks forth. Those wonderful houses about Drury-lane Theatre, which in the palmy days of theatres were prosperous and long-settled places of business, and which now change hands every week, but never change their character of being divided and sub-divided on the ground floor into mouldy dens of shops where an orange and half-a-dozen nuts, or a pomatum-pot, one cake of fancy soap, and a cigar box, are offered for sale and never sold, were most ruefully contemplated that evening, by the statue of Shakespeare, with the rain-drops coursing one another down its innocent nose. Those inscrutable pigeon-hole offices, with nothing in them (not so much as an inkstand) but a model of a theatre before the curtain, where, in the Italian Opera season, tickets at reduced prices are kept on sale by nomadic gentlemen in smeary hats too tall for them, whom one occasionally seems to have seen on race-courses, not wholly unconnected with strips of cloth of various colours and a rolling ball—those Bedouin establishments, deserted by the tribe, and tenantless, except when sheltering in one corner an irregular row of ginger-beer bottles, which would have made one shudder on such a night, but for its being plain that they had nothing in them, shrunk from the shrill cries of the news-boys at their Exchange in the kennel of Catherine-street, like guilty things upon a fearful summons. At the pipe-shop in Great Russell-street, the Death’s-head pipes were like theatrical memento mori, admonishing beholders of the decline of the playhouse as an Institution. I walked up Bow-street, disposed to be angry with the shops there, that were letting out theatrical secrets by exhibiting to work-a-day humanity the stuff of which diadems and robes of kings are made. I noticed that some shops which had once been in the dramatic line, and had struggled out of it, were not getting on prosperously—like some actors I have known, who took to business and failed to make it answer. In a word, those streets looked so dull, and, considered as theatrical streets, so broken and bankrupt, that the FOUND DEAD on the black board at the police station might have announced the decease of the Drama, and the pools of water outside the fire-engine maker’s at the corner of Long-acre might have been occasioned by his having brought out the whole of his stock to play upon its last smouldering ashes.

And yet, on such a night in so degenerate a time, the object of my journey was theatrical. And yet within half an hour I was in an immense theatre, capable of holding nearly five thousand people.

What Theatre? Her Majesty’s? Far better. Royal Italian Opera? Far better. Infinitely superior to the latter for hearing in; infinitely superior to both, for seeing in. To every part of this Theatre, spacious fire-proof ways of ingress and egress. For every part of it, convenient places of refreshment and retiring rooms. Everything to eat and drink carefully supervised as to quality, and sold at an appointed price; respectable female attendants ready for the commonest women in the audience; a general air of consideration, decorum, and supervision, most commendable; an unquestionably humanising influence in all the social arrangements of the place.

Surely a dear Theatre, then? Because there were in London (not very long ago) Theatres with entrance-prices up to half-a-guinea a head, whose arrangements were not half so civilised. Surely, therefore, a dear Theatre? Not very dear. A gallery at three-pence, another gallery at fourpence, a pit at sixpence, boxes and pit-stalls at a shilling, and a few private boxes at half-a-crown.

My uncommercial curiosity induced me to go into every nook of this great place, and among every class of the audience assembled in it—amounting that evening, as I calculated, to about two thousand and odd hundreds. Magnificently lighted by a firmament of sparkling chandeliers, the building was ventilated to perfection. My sense of smell, without being particularly delicate, has been so offended in some of the commoner places of public resort, that I have often been obliged to leave them when I have made an uncommercial journey expressly to look on. The air of this Theatre was fresh, cool, and wholesome. To help towards this end, very sensible precautions had been used, ingeniously combining the experience of hospitals and railway stations. Asphalt pavements substituted for wooden floors, honest bare walls of glazed brick and tile—even at the back of the boxes—for plaster and paper, no benches stuffed, and no carpeting or baize used; a cool material with a light glazed surface, being the covering of the seats.

These various contrivances are as well considered in the place in question as if it were a Fever Hospital; the result is, that it is sweet and healthful. It has been constructed from the ground to the roof, with a careful reference to sight and sound in every corner; the result is, that its form is beautiful, and that the appearance of the audience, as seen from the proscenium—with every face in it commanding the stage, and the whole so admirably raked and turned to that centre, that a hand can scarcely move in the great assemblage without the movement being seen from thence—is highly remarkable in its union of vastness with compactness. The stage itself, and all its appurtenances of machinery, cellarage, height and breadth, are on a scale more like the Scala at Milan, or the San Carlo at Naples, or the Grand Opera at Paris, than any notion a stranger would be likely to form of the Britannia Theatre at Hoxton, a mile north of St. Luke’s Hospital in the Old-street-road, London. The Forty Thieves might be played here, and every thief ride his real horse, and the disguised captain bring in his oil jars on a train of real camels, and nobody be put out of the way. This really extraordinary place is the achievement of one man’s enterprise, and was erected on the ruins of an inconvenient old building in less than five months, at a round cost of five-and-twenty thousand pounds. To dismiss this part of my subject, and still to render to the proprietor the credit that is strictly his due, I must add that his sense of the responsibility upon him to make the best of his audience, and to do his best for them, is a highly agreeable sign of these times.

As the spectators at this theatre, for a reason I will presently show, were the object of my journey, I entered on the play of the night as one of the two thousand and odd hundreds, by looking about me at my neighbours. We were a motley assemblage of people, and we had a good many boys and young men among us; we had also many girls and young women. To represent, however, that we did not include a very great number, and a very fair proportion of family groups, would be to make a gross mis-statement. Such groups were to be seen in all parts of the house; in the boxes and stalls particularly, they were composed of persons of very decent appearance, who had many children with them. Among our dresses there were most kinds of shabby and greasy wear, and much fustian and corduroy that was neither sound nor fragrant. The caps of our young men were mostly of a limp character, and we who wore them, slouched, high-shouldered, into our places with our hands in our pockets, and occasionally twisted our cravats about our necks like eels, and occasionally tied them down our breasts like links of sausages, and occasionally had a screw in our hair over each cheek-bone with a slight Thief-flavour in it. Besides prowlers and idlers, we were mechanics, dock-labourers, costermongers, petty tradesmen, small clerks, milliners, stay-makers, shoe-binders, slop-workers, poor workers in a hundred highways and byways. Many of us—on the whole, the majority—were not at all clean, and not at all choice in our lives or conversation. But we had all come together in a place where our convenience was well consulted, and where we were well looked after, to enjoy an evening’s entertainment in common. We were not going to lose any part of what we had paid for through anybody’s caprice, and as a community we had a character to lose. So, we were closely attentive, and kept excellent order; and let the man or boy who did otherwise instantly get out from this place, or we would put him out with the greatest expedition.

We began at half-past six with a pantomime—with a pantomime so long, that before it was over I felt as if I had been travelling for six weeks—going to India, say, by the Overland Mail. The Spirit of Liberty was the principal personage in the Introduction, and the Four Quarters of the World came out of the globe, glittering, and discoursed with the Spirit, who sang charmingly. We were delighted to understand that there was no liberty anywhere but among ourselves, and we highly applauded the agreeable fact. In an allegorical way, which did as well as any other way, we and the Spirit of Liberty got into a kingdom of Needles and Pins, and found them at war with a potentate who called in to his aid their old arch enemy Rust, and who would have got the better of them if the Spirit of Liberty had not in the nick of time transformed the leaders into Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, Columbine, Harlequina, and a whole family of Sprites, consisting of a remarkably stout father and three spineless sons. We all knew what was coming when the Spirit of Liberty addressed the king with a big face, and His Majesty backed to the side-scenes and began untying himself behind, with his big face all on one side. Our excitement at that crisis was great, and our delight unbounded. After this era in our existence, we went through all the incidents of a pantomime; it was not by any means a savage pantomime, in the way of burning or boiling people, or throwing them out of window, or cutting them up; was often very droll; was always liberally got up, and cleverly presented. I noticed that the people who kept the shops, and who represented the passengers in the thoroughfares, and so forth, had no conventionality in them, but were unusually like the real thing—from which I infer that you may take that audience in (if you wish to) concerning Knights and Ladies, Fairies, Angels, or such like, but they are not to be done as to anything in the streets. I noticed, also, that when two young men, dressed in exact imitation of the eel-and-sausage-cravated portion of the audience, were chased by policemen, and, finding themselves in danger of being caught, dropped so suddenly as to oblige the policemen to tumble over them, there was great rejoicing among the caps—as though it were a delicate reference to something they had heard of before.

The Pantomime was succeeded by a Melo-Drama. Throughout the evening I was pleased to observe Virtue quite as triumphant as she usually is out of doors, and indeed I thought rather more so. We all agreed (for the time) that honesty was the best policy, and we were as hard as iron upon Vice, and we wouldn’t hear of Villainy getting on in the world—no, not on any consideration whatever.

Between the pieces, we almost all of us went out and refreshed. Many of us went the length of drinking beer at the bar of the neighbouring public-house, some of us drank spirits, crowds of us had sandwiches and ginger-beer at the refreshment-bars established for us in the Theatre. The sandwich—as substantial as was consistent with portability, and as cheap as possible—we hailed as one of our greatest institutions. It forced its way among us at all stages of the entertainment, and we were always delighted to see it; its adaptability to the varying moods of our nature was surprising; we could never weep so comfortably as when our tears fell on our sandwich; we could never laugh so heartily as when we choked with sandwich; Virtue never looked so beautiful or Vice so deformed as when we paused, sandwich in hand, to consider what would come of that resolution of Wickedness in boots, to sever Innocence in flowered chintz from Honest Industry in striped stockings. When the curtain fell for the night, we still fell back upon sandwich, to help us through the rain and mire, and home to bed.

This, as I have mentioned, was Saturday night. Being Saturday night, I had accomplished but the half of my uncommercial journey; for, its object was to compare the play on Saturday evening with the preaching in the same Theatre on Sunday evening.

Therefore, at the same hour of half-past six on the similarly damp and muddy Sunday evening, I returned to this Theatre. I drove up to the entrance (fearful of being late, or I should have come on foot), and found myself in a large crowd of people who, I am happy to state, were put into excellent spirits by my arrival. Having nothing to look at but the mud and the closed doors, they looked at me, and highly enjoyed the comic spectacle. My modesty inducing me to draw off, some hundreds of yards, into a dark corner, they at once forgot me, and applied themselves to their former occupation of looking at the mud and looking in at the closed doors: which, being of grated ironwork, allowed the lighted passage within to be seen. They were chiefly people of respectable appearance, odd and impulsive as most crowds are, and making a joke of being there as most crowds do.

In the dark corner I might have sat a long while, but that a very obliging passer-by informed me that the Theatre was already full, and that the people whom I saw in the street were all shut out for want of room. After that, I lost no time in worming myself into the building, and creeping to a place in a Proscenium box that had been kept for me.

There must have been full four thousand people present. Carefully estimating the pit alone, I could bring it out as holding little less than fourteen hundred. Every part of the house was well filled, and I had not found it easy to make my way along the back of the boxes to where I sat. The chandeliers in the ceiling were lighted; there was no light on the stage; the orchestra was empty. The green curtain was down, and, packed pretty closely on chairs on the small space of stage before it, were some thirty gentlemen, and two or three ladies. In the centre of these, in a desk or pulpit covered with red baize, was the presiding minister. The kind of rostrum he occupied will be very well understood, if I liken it to a boarded-up fireplace turned towards the audience, with a gentleman in a black surtout standing in the stove and leaning forward over the mantelpiece.

A portion of Scripture was being read when I went in. It was followed by a discourse, to which the congregation listened with most exemplary attention and uninterrupted silence and decorum. My own attention comprehended both the auditory and the speaker, and shall turn to both in this recalling of the scene, exactly as it did at the time.

‘A very difficult thing,’ I thought, when the discourse began, ‘to speak appropriately to so large an audience, and to speak with tact. Without it, better not to speak at all. Infinitely better, to read the New Testament well, and to let that speak. In this congregation there is indubitably one pulse; but I doubt if any power short of genius can touch it as one, and make it answer as one.’

I could not possibly say to myself as the discourse proceeded, that the minister was a good speaker. I could not possibly say to myself that he expressed an understanding of the general mind and character of his audience. There was a supposititious working-man introduced into the homily, to make supposititious objections to our Christian religion and be reasoned down, who was not only a very disagreeable person, but remarkably unlike life—very much more unlike it than anything I had seen in the pantomime. The native independence of character this artisan was supposed to possess, was represented by a suggestion of a dialect that I certainly never heard in my uncommercial travels, and with a coarse swing of voice and manner anything but agreeable to his feelings, I should conceive, considered in the light of a portrait, and as far away from the fact as a Chinese Tartar. There was a model pauper introduced in like manner, who appeared to me to be the most intolerably arrogant pauper ever relieved, and to show himself in absolute want and dire necessity of a course of Stone Yard. For, how did this pauper testify to his having received the gospel of humility? A gentleman met him in the workhouse, and said (which I myself really thought good-natured of him), ‘Ah, John? I am sorry to see you here. I am sorry to see you so poor.’ ‘Poor, sir!’ replied that man, drawing himself up, ‘I am the son of a Prince! My father is the King of Kings. My father is the Lord of Lords. My father is the ruler of all the Princes of the Earth!’ &c. And this was what all the preacher’s fellow-sinners might come to, if they would embrace this blessed book—which I must say it did some violence to my own feelings of reverence, to see held out at arm’s length at frequent intervals and soundingly slapped, like a slow lot at a sale. Now, could I help asking myself the question, whether the mechanic before me, who must detect the preacher as being wrong about the visible manner of himself and the like of himself, and about such a noisy lip-server as that pauper, might not, most unhappily for the usefulness of the occasion, doubt that preacher’s being right about things not visible to human senses?

Again. Is it necessary or advisable to address such an audience continually as ‘fellow-sinners’? Is it not enough to be fellow-creatures, born yesterday, suffering and striving to-day, dying to-morrow? By our common humanity, my brothers and sisters, by our common capacities for pain and pleasure, by our common laughter and our common tears, by our common aspiration to reach something better than ourselves, by our common tendency to believe in something good, and to invest whatever we love or whatever we lose with some qualities that are superior to our own failings and weaknesses as we know them in our own poor hearts—by these, Hear me!—Surely, it is enough to be fellow-creatures. Surely, it includes the other designation, and some touching meanings over and above.

Again. There was a personage introduced into the discourse (not an absolute novelty, to the best of my remembrance of my reading), who had been personally known to the preacher, and had been quite a Crichton in all the ways of philosophy, but had been an infidel. Many a time had the preacher talked with him on that subject, and many a time had he failed to convince that intelligent man. But he fell ill, and died, and before he died he recorded his conversion—in words which the preacher had taken down, my fellow-sinners, and would read to you from this piece of paper. I must confess that to me, as one of an uninstructed audience, they did not appear particularly edifying. I thought their tone extremely selfish, and I thought they had a spiritual vanity in them which was of the before-mentioned refractory pauper’s family.

All slangs and twangs are objectionable everywhere, but the slang and twang of the conventicle—as bad in its way as that of the House of Commons, and nothing worse can be said of it—should be studiously avoided under such circumstances as I describe. The avoidance was not complete on this occasion. Nor was it quite agreeable to see the preacher addressing his pet ‘points’ to his backers on the stage, as if appealing to those disciples to show him up, and testify to the multitude that each of those points was a clincher.

But, in respect of the large Christianity of his general tone; of his renunciation of all priestly authority; of his earnest and reiterated assurance to the people that the commonest among them could work out their own salvation if they would, by simply, lovingly, and dutifully following Our Saviour, and that they needed the mediation of no erring man; in these particulars, this gentleman deserved all praise. Nothing could be better than the spirit, or the plain emphatic words of his discourse in these respects. And it was a most significant and encouraging circumstance that whenever he struck that chord, or whenever he described anything which Christ himself had done, the array of faces before him was very much more earnest, and very much more expressive of emotion, than at any other time.

And now, I am brought to the fact, that the lowest part of the audience of the previous night, was not there. There is no doubt about it. There was no such thing in that building, that Sunday evening. I have been told since, that the lowest part of the audience of the Victoria Theatre has been attracted to its Sunday services. I have been very glad to hear it, but on this occasion of which I write, the lowest part of the usual audience of the Britannia Theatre, decidedly and unquestionably stayed away. When I first took my seat and looked at the house, my surprise at the change in its occupants was as great as my disappointment. To the most respectable class of the previous evening, was added a great number of respectable strangers attracted by curiosity, and drafts from the regular congregations of various chapels. It was impossible to fail in identifying the character of these last, and they were very numerous. I came out in a strong, slow tide of them setting from the boxes. Indeed, while the discourse was in progress, the respectable character of the auditory was so manifest in their appearance, that when the minister addressed a supposititious ‘outcast,’ one really felt a little impatient of it, as a figure of speech not justified by anything the eye could discover.

The time appointed for the conclusion of the proceedings was eight o’clock. The address having lasted until full that time, and it being the custom to conclude with a hymn, the preacher intimated in a few sensible words that the clock had struck the hour, and that those who desired to go before the hymn was sung, could go now, without giving offence. No one stirred. The hymn was then sung, in good time and tune and unison, and its effect was very striking. A comprehensive benevolent prayer dismissed the throng, and in seven or eight minutes there was nothing left in the Theatre but a light cloud of dust.

That these Sunday meetings in Theatres are good things, I do not doubt. Nor do I doubt that they will work lower and lower down in the social scale, if those who preside over them will be very careful on two heads: firstly, not to disparage the places in which they speak, or the intelligence of their hearers; secondly, not to set themselves in antagonism to the natural inborn desire of the mass of mankind to recreate themselves and to be amused.

There is a third head, taking precedence of all others, to which my remarks on the discourse I heard, have tended. In the New Testament there is the most beautiful and affecting history conceivable by man, and there are the terse models for all prayer and for all preaching. As to the models, imitate them, Sunday preachers—else why are they there, consider? As to the history, tell it. Some people cannot read, some people will not read, many people (this especially holds among the young and ignorant) find it hard to pursue the verse-form in which the book is presented to them, and imagine that those breaks imply gaps and want of continuity. Help them over that first stumbling-block, by setting forth the history in narrative, with no fear of exhausting it. You will never preach so well, you will never move them so profoundly, you will never send them away with half so much to think of. Which is the better interest: Christ’s choice of twelve poor men to help in those merciful wonders among the poor and rejected; or the pious bullying of a whole Union-full of paupers? What is your changed philosopher to wretched me, peeping in at the door out of the mud of the streets and of my life, when you have the widow’s son to tell me about, the ruler’s daughter, the other figure at the door when the brother of the two sisters was dead, and one of the two ran to the mourner, crying, ‘The Master is come and calleth for thee’?—Let the preacher who will thoroughly forget himself and remember no individuality but one, and no eloquence but one, stand up before four thousand men and women at the Britannia Theatre any Sunday night, recounting that narrative to them as fellow creatures, and he shall see a sight!

Comments: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a British novelist and journalist. All the Year Round was a periodical owned by Dickens, for which one of his major contributions as a writer was the series of travel articles later collected as The Uncommercial Traveller (originally 1861, but expanded subsequently). The Britannia Theatre in Hoxon, London, was founded by Samuel Haycraft Lane in 1858, replacing an earlier, smaller theatre. It seated 3,000 (originally nearly 4,000 including those standing). Dickens was a regular visitor. The building became a cinema in 1913 but was destroyed in the Blitz in 1940.

Links:
Copy of All The Year Round edition at Dickens Journals Online
Copy of The Uncommercial Traveller (1905 edition, used for above text) at Project Gutenberg
‘A Cheap Theatre, Sunday Night’ image from 1877 edition at The Victorian Web